Listen to a Londoner: Owen Duff

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you want to be interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk.

Owen Duff, 29

Singer-songwriter and sometime conceptual artist Owen Duff was born in Northern Ireland, grew up in Hull and now lives in Hackney, East London, where he makes songs and videos. His latest project is the EP ‘Under’, which is a set of songs inspired by living in the capital.

LLO: Which aspects of London life most influence your creativity?
OD:
I think the biggest influence is just being amongst so many people, and being able to observe the things that people spend their time and energy making and doing. Life seems to happen faster here, so all these experiences, relationships, environmental and cultural changes are coming and going in quick succession, which can be overwhelming on a personal level but good for sparking off ideas. I also think the kind of people London attracts has an effect, in that it’s quite easy to meet people who’ve come here to try and achieve big and exciting things. Conversations with these people is often instrumental in provoking new thoughts and ideas.

LLO: You just released your first video to the song “London You’re My High”. What should we remember to appreciate about living in London if our spirits start to droop?
OD:
Well, it’s an amazing place; most of us live in relative wealth and freedom, in a city with so much variety, history, and culture… really there’s so much opportunity to enjoy ourselves that we’re spoiled. Having said that, for me it’s the personal relationships that London has allowed me that I appreciate most – the size of the city means that I’ve been able to find many people with whom I have a lot in common and whose company I enjoy, whereas in a smaller town I might only have found a few.

LLO: Tell us a bit more about the video itself, where the idea came from, some of the locations you’ve picked out that are especially special to you, etc.
OD:
The video was an idea I had whilst trying to get to sleep (most of my best ideas happen at this time; I’m a bit of an insomniac). I wanted to create something that both summed up my personal history in this city and was universal enough for other people to relate to. I started by making a list of all the memorable things that have happened to me since moving here, and then I started to think about where these things had taken place, which led me to think geographically, which is when I had the idea to use Google Earth to map out these experiences. I could have been more specific about what exactly each event was, but I wanted to leave it vague enough that people can read what they want into each.

LLO: You sing, play piano, guitar, ukulele, cello and percussion; write, record and produce. Sounds tiring. What are the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of producing an EP from start to finish?
OD:
I think the rewarding-challenging aspects are intertwined – it is in overcoming the challenges that one finds the sense of reward. Certainly the early stages of writing can be totally euphoric, but after the initial inspiration comes the hard work of turning ideas into finished songs.

Lyrics are the thing I usually spend longest on, musically I tend to work quite instinctively and a lot from improvisation (sometimes I’ll just record a piano improvisation then go back and put words over the top, and that’s the song finished). There is a definite tension between the words and the music – often in order to express something properly I’d want to squeeze in as many words as possible, but that can really compromise melody and the ability to sing something well, so a balance has to be found. I tend to use extended metaphors and conceits quite a lot in my lyrics, which can make them hard work to complete as you’re trying to write about several different things at once.

I also find production difficult at times – unfortunately, I don’t have the skills nor resources to always arrange my songs as I imagine them (I’d love to arrange for different instrumental ensembles), so I have to find compromises, some of which work better than others. Production is so influential on people’s overall impression of a song that I can get quite hung up on trying to get it right. For example, ‘London You’re My High’ has gone through five different arrangements over a few years…

LLO: Your bio on your website says “Owen sometimes hides CDs in weird places around the world, just to see who finds them.” I’m intrigued. Tell us more.
OD:
I did a project between 2008 and 2009 – http://twentytwominutesfourweeks.blogspot.com. The first part was writing and recording twenty songs in four weeks, which was a challenge I set myself just to see if I could do it. Once I’d finished the songs I was mulling over how and if I would release them, and decided that it would be fun to play with the way people find recorded music now. The ease with which music can be discovered and heard on the internet means some of its value is perhaps lost (of course there are many advantages to this, in terms of everyone’s ability to access music). I wanted people who found the music I’d made to feel that there was something different and enigmatic about them, so I had the idea to start hiding CDs with the twenty songs on them around London, for people to come across, without knowing what they were or who had left them there. I then extended the idea and started asking people in other cities around the world to help out – photos of all the different places that the CDs were hidden were then recorded on the blog. People should take a look! I haven’t hidden any in a while but I might do it again for a future project.

LLO: Favourite venue to play a gig in the capital?
OD:
Well, I played Bush Hall last year, which was lovely, it’s a really nice building and has a good acoustic. I think though the favourite gig I played was at the Fleapit in Columbia Road, it was completely unplugged so I just sang and played guitar without having to worry about how I sounded through a microphone.

LLO: According to Twitter, your reading rate needs to match your book buying rate. Where are the best places to buy books in London?
OD:
The best book shop I’ve found in London is in Notting Hill, the Book and Comic Exchange. I also like wandering around the second-hand bookshops south of Euston road.

LLO: Favourite London discovery?
OD:
Ah, that’s a difficult one… I think it would have to be the amazing experiential/site-specific theatre that happens here, Punchdrunk being the main proponents. I have to give a mention to You Me Bum Bum Train as well, as I had an absolutely mind-blowing experience courtesy of them just last night.

LLO: Where is the most unique or quirky place you can recommend for food or drinks round here?
OD:
I love Mess Cafe in Hackney, but it closed recently for refurbishment and I’m a bit worried they’re not going to reopen… For drinks my current regular haunt is the Nelson’s Head (also in Hackney), and I went to the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell recently, which is quite special – the current building dates back a few hundred years and going in there feels a bit like traveling back in time.

LLO: What’s next for you and your music career?
OD:
At the moment I’m working on another EP/album derived from some of the 20 “Two Minutes 4 Weeks” songs. I have woodwind arrangements I wrote for a live show in 2009 so would like to get those recorded. Once that’s done I’ll be gigging again, although I’d like to find more offbeat venues to play than those on the regular London circuit. I’m also working on new songs to release after that, and recording a few cover songs and videos – so far I’ve done Buddy Holly, Joanna Newsom and Whitney Houston, and I’m very open to suggestion as to others I could do. Last but not least I have some side-projects which involve different styles of music to be released under different names, but which will all exist under the banner of ‘Clothmother’, which is a sort of nominal label I created recently. After that, who knows…

Thanks Owen!

Links:

http://www.owenduff.co.uk
http://www.owenduff.co.uk/videos
http://owenduff.bandcamp.com

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

Listen to a Londoner: Marsha Moore

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you want to be interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk. Always looking for new volunteers.

Marsha Moore, 36

A native Canadian, Marsha has lived and worked in London for the past six years. Her first book, 24 Hours London (Prospera Publishing 2009), was inspired by her love for her adopted city.

LLO: Where are you from originally, how did you end up in London and how long have you been in this fabulous city?
MM:
I’m from Canada originally. I came to London six years ago as a teacher, met my husband here, got married and stayed! I miss Canada but London is home to me now. As a full-time writer, it’s got a fantastic literary scene and I’ve been able to meet and network with lots of other writers.

LLO: As the author of 24 Hours London and 24 Hours Paris, which city do you prefer and why?
MM:
Paris is such a beautiful city that you can’t help but be stunned by how perfectly groomed it appears to be. It reminds me of entering my mother’s room as a child – you’re fascinated by everything but afraid to touch it unless you somehow mess it up. London is greyer, less appealing visually, and less ordered, but you feel somehow like you can dig in and get your hands dirty. So I have to say – as much as I like Paris – I love living in London.

LLO: I’ve got 24 hours to kill in London and want to get off the tourist track. What do you suggest?
MM:
While it’s not exactly secret, wandering along the Thames on the  Southbank – preferably in good weather – is one of my favourite things to do. You’ve got the British Film Institute, The National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall and the Tate Modern all within a kilometer, as well as brilliant views over the river! London’s markets also can’t be missed – try Spitalfields and Columbia Road on a Sunday for flowers to frou frou (and don’t miss out Brick Lane along the way), and Borough Market for food. In the north of the city is Hampstead Heath, where you can wander through the trees, fly a kite and take a dip in a pond…and forget you’re in a mega-metropolis!

LLO: What’s your favourite late-night London venue/activity?
MM:
The energy in Soho is so amazing I could soak it up all night! The buzz of the streets, the swarms of crowds outside West End theatres… for me, it’s what London is all about. There are loads of great spots in Soho but I like LAB for drinks, Pulcinella for pizza and Balans for late-night (or early morning!) dinners. The Curzon also has midnight cinema once a month, where you can chill out and watch films until morning.

LLO: Where in London do you go for new inspiration if writer’s block strikes?
MM:
London has so many great green spaces and I always find a wander through them clears my head! I love the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, in particular – there’s nothing better than grabbing a coffee at the Lido and watching the boats drift up and down. But my favourite writing spot is my office, where I can stare out the window for hours watching the double-deckers storm by and absorbing the rhythm of the street.

LLO: Favourite bookshop in the capital and why?
MM:
London’s bursting with brilliant bookshops – John Sandoe and Foyles, to name a few – but my favourite has to be Daunt. Enter here and you feel like you’ve entered a shrine to the printed word! Books are arranged by country –  you can seek out your interest and browse the novels, non-fiction and guides with awe. The store also has branches in Holland Park, Chelsea, Belsize Park and Hampstead, but it is the Marylebone store – located in an original Edwardian bookstore – that is truly amazing.

LLO: What’s the best part about living in your postcode?
MM:
I live in Kensington, and I love it! It has brash new shops and restaurants mixed with small independent ones that look like they’ve been around for ages. Pubs are tucked away off busy pavements, and elegant terraced houses with private squares line the streets. You get a sense of what the city must have been like a hundred years ago. You’re also close to Kensington Gardens – where you can lounge by the gazebo in the summer and listen to music – and Holland Park, with its wonderful peacocks.

LLO: Best London discovery while working on your book?
MM:
I’ve found out so many great things about the city while working on the book that it’s hard to narrow it down! But one of my favourite locations is Lower Marsh Street, close to Waterloo. I’d been to the station so many times, but I had no idea this small street – full of gems like I Knit London (where you can drink beer and knit) and Scooterworks (a café in a former repair shop) – existed!

LLO: Which London-based writers do you most admire?
MM:
Tough question!  I am massive fan of chick lit (I have my own chick-lit novel being published next year), and London has provided a great setting for many chick-lit novels. Helen Fielding, the author of Bridget Jones’ Diary, used to live in Notting Hill. Sophie Kinsella, who lives just outside of London, is also one of my favourites. I love to see the city through the eyes of their main characters.

LLO: Most unusual restaurant or pub you’ve come across that’s worth a visit?
MM:
Definitely has to be Ye Olde Mitre! Walk down Hatton Garden and between numbers 8 and 10, you’ll come to an arched entryway into an alley with a sign stating ‘Ye Olde Mitre 1546’. Enter the alley and you’ll see a pub many locals have yet to discover. Although the current building only dates back to the eighteenth century, the pub has existed since 1547 when it was built to serve the servants of the nearby Palace of the Bishops of Ely. The trunk of a cherry tree has been preserved in the corner of the bar, and legend has it that Elizabeth I danced the maypole around it!

Thanks Marsha!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

Slow London: An interview with Hayley Cull

Last week, Hayley sent me a copy of Slow London, a London guide for locals co-written with journalist Robin Barton with gorgeous black and white photography by Mark Chilvers. It’s perfectly in tune to Little London Observationist, about taking the time to appreciate the little things in London life. It “invites readers to rise up – in their own time, of course – against the culture of speed, fad and uniformity, and instead, revel in the things that make living in this corner of the world unique.”

Inspired by her positive approach to London life that can too often seem hectic, I asked her if she’d like to tell us a bit about taking it easy in the city. She gladly set aside some time to share stories about Londoners who are living fulfilling lives, how and where she enjoys the slow life and gave us a sneak peak at a couple of Mark’s photos from the book.

Slow London hits bookshops around London today and is well worth a read.

LLO: Tell us about a Londoner you’ve met who most exemplifies the fulfilling approach to life emphasized in Slow London.
HC:
I wish I could pick one! But one of the things I’ve noticed is that, just as the people in this city are so diverse, so too are their ways of slowing down and getting the most out of life here. From the volunteers in my favourite charity shop who are always chatting to each other about the amazing food and music they’ve been enjoying that week, to my friend who’ll sketch cityscapes as a way of making sure she’s seeing the details, it seems there are so many ways to find your natural rhythm. I’ve met a woman who was leaving packets of seeds around her housing estate so people might be inspired to plant wildflowers; been led down new bike paths under the effusive advice of a man who cycles absolutely everywhere; and learnt about a new form of yoga just last week when a girl on the bus struck up a conversation because she liked my scarf.

LLO: What is the best way to take it easy in your postcode?
HC:
I live way down in SW19 – right around the corner from Merton Abbey Mills. Tucked into a crook of the River Wandle, there’s this beautiful little market every weekend with fresh food, local art and strange old knickknacks. Fishermen while away the hours as women in fraying layers chat to the people selling them veggies, and it’s all capped off with a pint at the William Morris pub, sitting out on the balcony watching the kingfishers dart between branches draping over the river. I love this village atmosphere, the local side of London that draws us in and makes us feel at home.

LLO: Favourite way to savour a Saturday in London?
HC:
A lazy home-cooked breakfast listening to the radio, followed by a long walk. Doesn’t matter where – it might be around the quiet park near home or winding right through the middle of town to Brick Lane. A visit to my local farmers’ market, an hour or so in the garden, and then a long and laid-back dinner with good friends.

LLO: There’s a section in your book called “Be”, broken down into categories – See, Hear, Smell, Taste, Touch. What’s your favourite thing the capital has to offer in each category?
HC:
There’s so much art to see! Whether it’s the graffitied walls of East London, the creativity rising up from the markets, or the masterpieces at the National Gallery, there’s always something waiting to take you out of yourself. Aside from the phenomenal music venues, I love the sound of the dawn chorus, and birdsong in general – I’m amazed that wherever you are in London, whatever time of day, you’ll pretty much always hear it mingling with the traffic, a constant reminder that the city isn’t as relentless as it might seem. Smell would have to be Columbia Road Flower Market, but I’ll admit that the sound of the traders’ cries are a big part of that too. Marylebone Farmers’ Market or Borough for taste, and the way the stallholders are so passionate about their produce that they love to tell you all about it as you taste and wander, wander and taste. And touch, I’d say the feeling of laying in the grass in any central London park, staring at the sky and knowing that I’m part of it all.

LLO: What makes Slow London different from other London guides?
HC:
City guides tend to encourage seeing as much as possible, but as soon as you do that, you end up rushing it all and not seeing things properly. Slow London is completely different in that it’s a lifestyle guide for locals. It’s about quality over quantity; focuses on the lesser-known people, places and events rather than what’s necessarily trendy and popular; and replaces the usual guidebook formality with a tendency to go off-track now and then, to follow a few stray musical notes or divert down a particularly enchanting side street.

LLO: Share a favourite “slow London” image?
HC:
Please can I have two? These are not my photos; they were taken by Mark Chilvers, who took all the photos throughout the book. I love Battersea Power Station: it’s like a lonely old giant, languishing there under the weight of its chimneys, proudly and purposelessly lording over the slow-flowing Thames. This view feels so privileged, like peering into the secrets of a different time. And the second photo is just so ‘whatever’.

LLO: I hear you spend a lot of time in bookshops. Which ones are your favourites? Any you recommend that still have that messy-basement-musty-good-book-smell appeal?
HC:
For that appeal, it would have to be a secondhand bookshop, wouldn’t it? There’s just something about the smell of old ink and dusty pages. The messy old Copperfield’s in Wimbledon and the little place opposite Balham station have the added bonus of seemingly flouting all sense of order – so much the better for rummaging. John Sandoe Books in Chelsea strikes a perfect balance in stacking new and old side by side, making it one of the most delightfully chaotic bookshops around.

LLO: Best place in London to enjoy a laid back meal without feeling rushed?
HC:
Does afternoon tea count as a meal? I love Rosie’s Deli in Brixton Market, and not only for the carrot cake that absorbs entire afternoons. I always find myself staying for one more tea, and another, and oh go on, just one more.

LLO: Best place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city on a rainy day?
HC:
Sitting upstairs on a random bus for a one-pound sightseeing tour of some obscure part of town, enjoying the misty grey light that makes the whole city look like a romantic old black and white film. Better still, curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea, watching the rain.

LLO: Where can we pick up a copy of Slow London?
HC:
All ‘good’ bookshops (the not-so-good ones can still order it in). Otherwise, although it’s not half as much fun as browsing the shelves, you can order it online at www.slowguides.com/london

Thanks Hayley!

London Art Spot: Bernadette Fricker

Berny is here from sunny Oz, selling her nostalgic jewellery in London shops and the market in Stoke Newington. Scouring charity shops for dusty books, she’s created a unique product by taking pieces of well known stories like Alice in Wonderland and turning them into earrings and brooches.

She’s taken a bit of time to share some photos of her work, tell us the story of how it all started and about the latest range of jewellery to look out for soon. Check out her website for more: www.folksy.com/shops/Skettie

“A baby deer was born. Oh my, there was so much excitement that day! Bambi necklace.”

LLO: How and when did you come up with the idea to make recycled jewellery from the pages of abandoned books?
BF:
Before I moved to the UK I found an old 1960’s children’s annual on a dusty shelf in a charity store in Melbourne. It was missing its cover and several pages but had the most beautiful illustrations and graphics inside and it seemed a terrible waste to just leave it sitting there lonely and abandoned on the shelf. I thought that it was destined for greater things and a measly 20 cents later it was mine. A few months later, when I moved to England, some of the pages managed to make the cut to be included in my excessively overstuffed suitcase.

“Quotation brooches 1, 2 and 3”

 

LLO: You have a bachelor degree in Landscape Architecture. Why the switch to making jewellery?  
BF:
When I moved over from Australia last May I was planning on looking for work  as a Landscape Architect but in an unfortunate coincidence I managed to time my move perfectly with the height of the recession so by the time I arrived there wasn’t a great deal of work around.  To keep myself occupied I decided to make something to sell at a local art market and since I had left my sewing machine back home in Oz, jewellery was the next thing that came to mind. Nine months later I’m still doing it and really loving every aspect of the work.

“Birds fly over the rainbow; Why then, oh why can’t I? – Selection of bird necklaces and brooches.”

LLO: Your shop on Etsy.com is called Skettie. What does that mean and where did the name come from?
BF: 
‘Skettie’ was my nickname as a young kid and it seemed appropriate as my designs are bright, colourful and playful and some of them even come from books or images which I enjoyed as a kid. 

“Cigarette card range.”

LLO: Would you consider working with other similar materials like magazines, for example?
BF: 
I started out making most of my pieces from the children’s annual I found back in Melbourne but since then I have found interesting materials in all shapes and sizes, including maps, magazines and even sheets of music. Most recently I found a stack of old cigarette collector cards with some great quirky images ranging from butterflies and birds to some extravagantly costumed figures which I have made into a range of earrings. I love the idea of taking something that has been damaged and neglected, whatever it may be, and transforming into an object that people can value and appreciate once more.

“Earrings created from Birds of England calender.”

“Where in the world – map earring range”

LLO: What books have you most recently recycled to make your jewellery?
BF:
I found a Judy Annual from the 1970’s in a charity shop in London which had a bit of water damage, but I have made a really fun range of quotation brooches from it. More recently I found a calendar with illustrations of English birds which have been made into a range of brooches and earrings.

“Floral cameo brooch”

LLO: Which shops are the best for finding suitable books?
BF:
There is a really brilliant second hand book store in Notting hill which has thousands and thousands of books and magazines. It has a huge basement too where everything is about 10p and I have found some great things down there. I love trawling through charity shops and flea markets to find interesting items; you never know what you will dig up. I even get people donating books to me that they have found and think might work. Another designer at a market brought me an old cookbook she had at home which had the most beautiful blue and white sketches of the architecture of Oxford. And a buyer from one of the shops where I sell my designs gave me two children’s books she had found at home which she was going to throw out.

“Floral earrings and brooch set.”

“Text cameo brooch”

LLO: Which creation are you most proud of so far and why?
BF:
At the moment I am working on a range of architecturally themed earrings which I quite fancy! The details in the church towers and the windows and doorways resemble wonderfully intricate lacework. I’m also working on a new range of designs inspired by cameo brooches which are due to hit the shelves soon.


“A selection of the architectural range.”

LLO: Which piece of jewellery has been the best selling since you started your business?
BF:
My earrings have been the best selling piece so far and come in two sizes. I had a range made from an old London tube map that proved very popular but quickly sold out and I have been on the hunt for another vintage tube map ever since. I don’t know that there is a particular ‘best selling design’ though as every single pair are unique, nearly all of them are one off images and its hard to know what individual people will like. I love that people get a real giggle out of a lot of the designs as they look through them all. Quite often they might recognise and reminisce over a design from a magazine or book they read as a child or will find a particular design that relates to a personal joke they have with a friend.

“Range of new cameo brooches”

LLO: Where can we find your jewellery in London?
BF:
You can find my jewellery in ‘Beyond the Valley’, just off Carnaby Street in Soho and in ‘Of Cabbages and Kings’. I also try to do as many markets as I can; some on the horizon include the monthly ‘Of Cabbages and Kings’ markets in Stoke Newington. 

“Selection of large earring range”

“Selection of small earring range”

LLO: Favourite London-based artists? 
BF:
There are some really talented designers whose work I’ve seen through markets I have done. I love Miso Funky’s ‘In case of emergency breakdance’ framed pictures and London Clay Birds is a favourite for her beautifully simple bird sculptures; I have two but want the whole flock!

“Where in the world – butterfly brooch”

Thanks Berny!

See more of Berny’s work here: www.ofcabbages.co.uk or here: www.beyondthevalley.com

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

Londonstani, innit.

I’m always attracted to books set in London (White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Geoff Ryman’s 253, etc). London is a familiar place but because of the incredible diversity, there are still many unfamiliar aspects. I’m also very interested in British Asian culture, so when I came across Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, I knew it would either love it or hate it. I loved it. Seeing as this blog is about anything London, thought I’d share.
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Gautam is a journalist for the Financial Times (one of those lucky ones who stuck his foot in their door as a graduate trainee and weaselled his way to full time staff status ever since). Londonstani is his first novel (published 3-4 years ago now), and quite an accomplishment at that because it leaves your mind churning at the end with a sly little twist that changes the way you think about the entire story. (No worries – I won’t give that away!)
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It’s set in Hounslow and follows the Brit-Asian rudeboy scene through the eyes of the slightly-awkward Jas who tries to fit in with the hardcore bad boys but doesn’t quite cut it. The entire book is written in rudeboy slang – not an easy task, but it certainly sets it apart. Gautam even wrote a style guide to keep it straight while he was writing.
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He explains the title on his website: “’Londonstani’ was a self-referential term that basically meant I’m proud to be a Londoner because it’s a place where I can be both British and Asian and still feel 100 per cent like I belong – like I’m a native. It’s like desi slang for the word “Londoner”; it means the same thing.”
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Overall, it’s a brilliant exploration of identity, primarily, also religion, cross-cultural relationships, subcultures, family life, machismo and the pressure to either fit in or rebel against mainstream society. It hits a lot of discussion-worthy points – What is mainstream culture anyway? What does it mean to be a second or third generation Asian in London? What happens when you mix cultures to create new relationships or a new identity?
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Gautam wrote Londonstani after researching the subject of Brit-Asian culture for his university dissertation and found himself with a lot more material and interest than he originally expected. He said it began with thinking “about the Brit-Asian rudeboy scene and the rejection of our parents’ efforts to integrate with mainstream Britain – leading to the development of our own brand of Britishness.”
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It’s a look at one way to define “Britishness” and more proof that the definition is constantly evolving and expanding.

www.gautammalkani.com

If you have any other recommendations for London-based fiction, pass em on in the comments…